DECEMBER 8, 2001
SOMEONE somewhere decided that the numbering system in Formula 1 should be changed from the system which has existed since 1995. This was done without the teams being consulted and resulted in a certain amount of pushing and shoving and three days later in the FIA issued a revamped version of the list going back to the system which had been expected but which was never formalized as a regulation. This new list reflects the finishing positions in the previous year's World Championship and the numbers are seen as a badge of honor. Ironically the cars feature almost no actual numbers these days because of the need for space for sponsorship so car identification is now done by dayglo flashes rather than hard-to-read numbers.
What is interesting is that behind the switch of the numbering system and the switch back to the accepted norm there was a short, sharp political battle.
The detail of the changes sheds little light on what happened. In the original listing Sauber was issued with numbers 16 and 17 despite having finished fourth in the Constructors' title and thus being in line to get numbers 7 and 8 for 2002. Jordan had also suffered having been given numbers 11 and 12 despite the fact that the Silverstone team beat British American Racing. So now the teams have swapped numbers with Jordan getting 9 and 10 and BAR sinking to 11 and 12. The big winners on the original list were Renault and Arrows. Renault (formerly Benetton) had been allotted numbers 7 and 8. The team is now back where it belongs with number 14 and 15. Arrows too had acquired 14 and 15 when its performances warranted only 20 and 21. As a result of this Jaguar Racing has moved up from 18 and 19 to 16 and 17; Prost from 22 and 23 to 18 and 19 but Minardi has dropped from 20 and 21 to 22 and 23.
The question which is perplexing Formula 1 folk is who came up the idea of changing the numbering system to favor Renault and Arrows and why they did it.
It is unlikely to have been the FIA President Max Mosley as he is not known to be a leading member of either the Flavio Briatore or Tom Walkinshaw fan clubs. It is hard to believe that one of Mosley's FIA minions would have made the change without getting clearance from the President. Bernie Ecclestone is close to Briatore and Walkinshaw but it is not clear why the numbers should come under his jurisdiction as he holds the commercial rights to F1 and race numbers are not really a commercial issue.
However when the flak started flying the FIA defended the original list before suddenly switching to the new list. It did nothing to give the federation an image of professionalism.
The only real hint of what happened came with the new list in which the FIA referred to the original listing as using the "traditional" system of numbering rather than one which has been used for only a few years. The comment smacked of a federation that did not really want to change its mind.
And so the mystery remains. Did Mosley force Ecclestone to make the change or did Ecclestone force Mosley?
It has to be one or the other...
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